'Loopy' takes Japan by storm

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It seems Japan just can't let go of our April 14 column calling Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama the "biggest loser" at the recent nuclear summit here because he asked for -- but did not get -- a one-on-one meeting with President Obama. We also described him as hapless and, in the view of Obama administration officials, "increasingly loopy."

The next day, a top aide to Hatoyama criticized the use of "loopy" as "somewhat impolite." In a just world, that might have ended the matter.

Alas, Hatoyama stunned members of the Japanese parliament, the Diet, last week when he said that the characterization may have been correct after all. "As The Washington Post says, I may certainly be a foolish prime minister," Hatoyama said, using a rather mild interpretation of the term.

Next thing you know, "loopy" is all the rage in the Japanese media, the new "in" term, even if its meaning is in doubt. An online poll reportedly found this when it asked: "'What do you think of the harsh criticism Prime Minister Hatoyama received from the American media during his American visit?"

A total of 84.7 percent of the respondents answered, "They took the words right out of my mouth." (Even though Hatoyama's ratings are plummeting, we suspect this must have been a small poll.)

By last weekend, T-shirts and other goods had popped up on Web sites with caricatures of Hatoyama highlighting the new hit word "loopy." One T-shirt sells on Amazon in Japan for 2,940 yen, or nearly $32 -- almost as much as a Kobe-beef slider. Must be top-quality cotton.

But confusion abounds as to what the word means.

We got a kind e-mail Saturday from Masayoshi Yamada, an emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Shimane, who said the "Japanese mass media showed us two different translations" of the word.

"One translated it into the Japanese as meaning 'stupid,' " he wrote, "the other 'crazy.' " A dictionary of American slang, he added, "defines it as 'stupid, silly or eccentric,' " which left him and his students "just helpless when we wanted to decide what your 'loopy' usage precisely means."

Dear Professor Yamada:

Thank you for your inquiry. At the outset, we must emphasize that "loopy" is the exact polar opposite of "in the loop," which means plugged in or very well informed about things, especially the internal decision-making at the top levels of organizations.

That said, it seems all of these definitions being used -- from Hatoyama's somewhat charitable "foolish" (translated by some as "confused," as in fuzzy-headed, the way you might be from cold medicine or drugs or alcohol) to the very harsh "crazy" -- do not quite capture the meaning.

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